Farming Minister Victoria Prentis claimed introducing legislation to safeguard import standards in future trade deals would ‘significantly disrupt’ food supplies, as MPs rejected a key amendment to the Agriculture Bill.
Two amendments designed to ensure new post-Brexit trade agreements do not allow in imports produced to lower standards than permitted here were rejected. The Bill comfortably passed its Second Reading on Wednesday and will now make its way to the House of Lords, where the amendments are expected to be inserted, before returning to the Commons again.
The two import amendments were subtly different. The first, tabled by Dorset MP Simon Hoare, would require imported agricultural goods to be produced to standards ‘as high as, or higher than’ those applied under UK law relating to animal welfare, the environment, hygiene food safety and traceability.
The second, tabled by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, would require imported products to produced or processed according to standards ‘which are equivalent to, or which exceed, the relevant domestic standards and regulations’ in relation to animal health and welfare, plant health, and environmental protection.
The amendments, of huge importance to the farming community, received much support among MPs.
You can read the debate in full here
Mr Hoare said our farmers and food producers work under high standards of regulation willingly and understand their importance and the consumer confidence that they bring. He insisted his amendment would not force countries that have entered into an FTA with us to change all their practices.
“It would simply be up to producers to work out if they were not hitting our standards and then, if they wished to access our lucrative markets, to change their practices in order so to do—the ordinary operation of the market,” he said.
“The new clause is not anti-free trade or anti-American, but pro our standards being a beacon and pro ensuring that there is a future for our agricultural sector and for our consumers to purchase securely and safely,” he said, pointing to the cross-party support it has received and the range of farming and environmental organisations backing it.
But Ms Prentis claimed the amendments would have ‘unintended consequences’. She reiterated the Government manifesto commitment that it will ‘not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards’ in trade negotiations. “This Government will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure that any deals live up to the values of our farmers and consumers,” she said.
She pointed out that the at the end of the transition period, all EU standards will be converted into domestic law, meaning all food coming into this country will be required to meet existing import requirements.
“While we all want to support British farmers, if passed, the well-meaning amendments would have unintended consequences,” she added. “The supply of food would be significantly disrupted if goods that meet our current import standards were blocked.”
The clauses would affect UK exports to countries with whom, as part of the EU, we currently have trade agreements, she added, claiming this would jeopardise potential continuity agreements. This would risk whisky exports, worth £578 million, she claimed.
The amendments, requiring assessments of UK and third standards, would also threaten the timetable of making new trade deals, Ms Prentis suggested.
‘Let us not be frightened’
But Neil Parish, chair of the EFRA Committee, who has been at the forefront of pushing the amendment, claimed industry and politicians were being ‘led up the garden path’ by the Government on this issue.
“It is no good being told, “Don’t put it in the Agriculture Bill; put it in the Trade Bill.” When we try to put it in the Trade Bill, it will be out of scope. We are being led down the garden path—we really are —and it is time for us to stand up and be counted,” he said.
He pointed out that the ‘whole raison d’être of the Bill is to move us in the direction of higher welfare and environmental standards’.
“But farming, and especially commercial farming, needs to be able to produce food and to do so competitively,” he said.
Highlighting the issue of chlorine washed chicken in the US, he said the practice, deployed where chickens are densely populated, reduced both costs and poultry welfare.
He added: “And I would say to the Americans, “Why don’t you upgrade your production? Why don’t you reduce the density and population of your chickens? Why do you not reduce the amount of antibiotics that you are using, and then you will produce better chicken not only for America: it can also come into this country?”
“Let us not be frightened of putting clauses into the Bill that protect us, with the great environmental and welfare standards that we want the whole Bill to have, and that farmers want to have.”
Former Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who while in the role was reported to be keen to allow imports produced to lower into the UK to help facilitate future trade deals, claimed the new clauses were not compatible with WTO rules.
He added they they would jeopardise the prospects completing new free trade agreements. “I can say from personal experience, in my discussions with the United States, that the US would walk were the proposals to become law in the United Kingdom, and it would be swiftly followed by others—the Australians, the New Zealanders and those involved in the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership would be unlikely to take kindly to it.
“They do not want the incorporation of UK rules to become a prerequisite to trading agreements with the UK”.
Meanwhile, it is also reported in the Financial Times today that Liz Truss’s Department for International Trade is planning to cut UK tariffs on US agricultural imports to advance progress on a free trade agreement, reported on Thursday.
The reports claims Mrs Truss’s plans are opposed by Defra Secretary George Eustice, who has raised concerns that such a step could undercut UK farmers, Reuters says.
NFU Brexit director Nick von Westenholz said: “Despite frequent warm words, it is disappointing the government did not take the opportunity to legislate that they will not allow the imports of food that would be illegal to produce here.”
Commenting on Twitter, Tenant Farmers Association chief executive George Dunn said: “So disappointing that this important #AgricultureBill amendment was voted down by use of the Government’s majority, particularly as it was in line with Government policy to ensure that our high standards of food production in the UK are not undermined in international trade.”
Also on Twitter, Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy, Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, said: “So, dear Britain, we are warned. Here is a Govt MP & chair of @CommonsEFRA wanting it in the #AgricultureBill that UK doesn’t lower standards and it’s rejected. I don’t like this. Nor should anyone who wants all people well fed from high quality food. Shame on George Eustice.”